Directed: Isabel Coixet
Writer: Isabel Coixet (screenplay), Penelope Fitzgerald (Novel)
Starring: Emily Mortimer, Bill Nighy, Patricia Clarkson
Tagline: “A town that lacks a bookshop isn’t always a town that wants one.”
Trivia: The narrator was the legendary Julie Christie. A half century earlier, Ms Christie had starred in the film Fahrenheit 451 (1966), adapted from the Ray Bradbury novel that was prominently featured in Bookshop
As someone that can never pass a bookshop without stopping and going in, a movie called The Bookshop, would obviously attract me.
At first glance, The Bookshop might look to some audiences like Chocolat with books instead of chocolates, but this film is about a woman who moves to a small town and opens a shop is nothing like that romantic comedy.
Other audiences might expect an inspiring tale of a courageous woman, a newcomer facing steep odds but finally winning over skeptical locals.
There is indeed a brave woman and a show of courage and defiance, but the story doesn’t work out in the standard stereotypical fashion. The story is inspiring in a different, darker way.
The tale of Florence (Emily Mortimer), a young war widow who opens a bookshop in a deceptively peaceful location, becomes more serious and far more touching than we expect.
Almost immediately, old-money forces align against her in the form of Violet (Patricia Clarkson), a grande dame who wants the store’s historic location for herself.
And as Violet, who’s every statement is like a blade covered by velvet, schemes to evict her, Florence finds an unlikely ally in Mr. Brundish (Bill Nighy), a reclusive misanthrope and avid reader.
The Spanish director Isabel Coixet might have been the best thing to happen to The Bookshop, a gently disruptive adaptation of the 1978 novel by the English writer Penelope Fitzgerald.
A more conventional filmmaker might have nudged this sarcastic attack on class entitlement in the direction of a rom-com that early scenes might seem to tease.
Instead, Ms. Coixet highlights the undertow of subtle viciousness in her refined material, giving its picturesque setting — an English coastal village in 1959 — a more sinister, cynical throw.
Having to adapt a book to the screen is a delicate and challenging work of writing, especially when much of the conflict that is taking place is done through a narrative voice.
In The Bookshop the issue of the narrative voice is probably the weakest link of this gentle and sensitive movie.
The film strains under its all-knowing voiceover narration, the speaker revealed only at the very end, which is one of the big twists of the movie.
Omniscient imposition works fine in a good read, but feels forced here, as though events must be propped up by some explanatory intervention.
The narrator says, “Florence had managed to live life thus far by pretending that human beings were not divided into exterminators and exterminating, with the former at any moment predominating,” one of many instances of telling instead of showing.
When Florence moves her bookshop into the old house, and moves herself in as well the narrator intrudes again to let us know that this moment would be her happiest in the shop, telling us before showing us, which is worst of all.
Though beautifully read by an unseen and un-credited Julie Christie, the narration is unnecessary and distracting, only reminding us that an audible version of the original book with Christie’s voice would be a much more suitable adaptation.
The bigger problem, however, is that Coixet minimizes the larger satirical sting of Fitzgerald’s book, which didn’t take aim only at snobbish, class-conscious control freaks like the Gamarts, but at the entire town of Hardborough.
It wasn’t only the people in charge who doomed Florence’s dream: it was the whole apathetic, docile community that rejected her invitation to embrace the joys of literature.
The acting is excellent with Emily Mortimer getting a chance to really shine as the widow determined to stay and make her bookshop succeed and she’s not alone – the rest of the cast are on top form, particularly the eternally splendid Bill Nighy.
Patricia Clarkson also relishes another opportunity to play a villainous socialite, Mrs Gamart, and as her despicable stooge Milo North, James Lance is oily without losing sight of the “big fish, small pond” essence of his pitiful scheming.
With all the weaknesses of the movie, one can’t deny the elegance of The Bookshop, with Marc Pou’s production design set off by Larrieu’s camerawork, Bernat Aragiones’ editing giving the tale a smooth, unhurried rhythm and Alfonso de Vilallonga contributing a supportive score.
Thanks to the expert craft contributions and the delicious performances this is a film worth watching.
Verdict – 4/5 Stars in my book